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Saving Others, Saving Ourselves

Essa, from Syria, teaches basic hygiene and contributes to the census efforts in the Nea Kavala camp in Greece. Danika, from Sarajevo, is on the front line aiding refugees in Paris. Maria, from Vietnam, has used her influential position in the Silicon Valley to found a non-profit organisation to support refugee rescue efforts. Collectively, these individuals demonstrate what we at Prosper hold dear — when refugees are given an opportunity, they give back. In honor of World Refugee Day, we hear how three people in different stages of the refugee experience are taking action in the current crisis: Their words are their own, with minimal editing.

Essa's Story. Helping others, helping himself.

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We begin with Essa from Aleppo who began volunteering in response to the horrendous conditions in the Nea Kavala. He communicated the following story to me via Facebook Messenger,

“I finished my degree in civil engineering in 2013 and I hoped to continue for my Masters, but it was impossible. I arrived in Greece in February and in March started to volunteer with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

“The living situation was very bad. When it was raining and cold, our tents were full of water, and nobody helped us. No one cared that the food we were given was awful. The toilets and shower were also very bad. There were biting insects and many snakes in our tents. I wanted to help the people and to be their voice. I like to listen to people.”

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I remember when we first got to the camp, most people were not washing their hands with soap, and we asked them why not. They answered that they did not have soap. So we hung bars of soap on strings on the taps every morning.

Essa continued, “Most of the children did not know how to wash their hands so we put posters and pictures up in the showers. We did puppet shows for children, songs, and clowning to teach them in a fun way.”

As he gained confidence, Essa joined the Mapping Team to create a survey of the camp. He and his brother, both English speakers, became valuable translators and data collectors.
“We collect information to help determine how many people are in the camp. We created a database including the full name, age, gender, language, nationality, profession, and health needs of each person, and we update it weekly. We also created a map of the entire camp.”

Essa appreciates the opportunity to listen to the stories of the people he meets. He hopes to return to school and study for a Masters at an EU University. He says that, in the future “I hope that the civil war in my country will end, and I can go back to see my family again.”

Danika's Story: Learning from Direct Experience

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Danika Jurisic fled Sarajevo alone as a teenager in 1992. She coordinates aid efforts in Paris, documents the lives of displaced peoples on the streets, and advocates for refugee rights. The following is a portion of a speech Danica gave at a TEDxIHE talk in Paris this spring.

I am a refugee. My identity, my life, my entire existence has been marked with this word. It was not a choice, it is just what I am.

“With the end of Yugoslavia we became a ‘mixed family’ overnight. I lived in Sarajevo and I left everything behind, my family, my home, my identity — I had to, just to survive. I was one of those numerous nameless children that came in busses, abandoned and exposed to predators.

“I had no financial or moral support and during those years, I depended entirely on help from social services. Being in the very vulnerable, exposed position of an underage refugee, gave me a very special insight. I saw the true nature of people — how they can be good and generous, or manipulative and exploitative.”

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Danika finds her personal experience useful in her present activity as a volunteer in refugee camps. She advises,

"When you are dealing with refugees, you have to be aware that they are people burdened with memories of a better past, burdened with destruction of their homes, their land. It is very hard to explain the magnitude of loss. It is not only the material, visible things, it is about identity, of things you don’t know they are there until they are gone.”

Danika continues, “This is why the presence of volunteers is vital. These humanitarians are unburdened by prejudices, open-minded, and driven by absolute belief in human rights. This is one of the most fascinating things I have witnessed in Paris, the hundreds of people who have jumped in and done their best to help. It comes so naturally, so easily, almost instinctually… I just wish their voices were more strongly reflected in the current policies of the EU.”

Maria's Story. Speaking out Publicly to Humanize Refugees

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For many volunteers in the current refugee crisis, action began with a photo. The photo of three year old Aylan Kurdi resonated particularly with Maria Tran, a project manager at Facebook. When Maria was three, she too was on a boat escaping war-torn Vietnam. Maria began to share her own story publicly as a way of calling attention to the refugee crisis and subsequently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to the crisis in Greece. The following text is taken from a speech she gave at her former workplace in the Silicon Valley.

“The current refugee crisis in Europe, particularly the dangerous sea route that refugees are taking from Turkey to Greece, reminded me of a period of my life that I haven’t thought about very much. I was also three when my parents and I were chased out of our home because we were ethnically Chinese. We risked our lives to escape persecution in Vietnam. My parents sold everything they had and paid for passage on a little fishing boat. We were lucky and our boat was picked up by coast guards and brought to safety and we were placed in a refugee camp.”

“When I think back to that time and my life and how I’m here, all of that only happened because I was rescued. Aylan Kurdi wasn’t that lucky, and so he ended up dead on a beach.”

Maria hadn’t ever expected to come out so publicly with her personal story, but she quickly realized the impact she could have. She knew that she could help others in Silicon Valley see, “I’m only here today because I was rescued.”
In October of 2015, Maria decided to spend two weeks volunteering to humanize the stories of refugees.

I had no plan. I don’t speak Arabic. I’m not a photographer. I’m not a journalist but I felt passionate and that trip changed my life.

Upon her return Maria wrote, “I was shocked at the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding. I came together with others and started Sea of Solidarity, a non-profit organization committed to addressing the needs at landing sites and refugee camps. I returned in November and stayed for another three weeks, helping in Moria, Skala, Mitilini, Chios, and Athens and returned again in the spring of 2016.”

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Essa, Danika, and Maria are living proof of how our society benefits when refugees have the opportunity to learn, to work, and to give. As we collectively navigate this crisis we must consider the cost of failing to act. What would it mean for the children of Nea Kavala if people like Essa weren’t rescued? What would volunteer efforts in Paris look like if Danika hadn’t been bussed to safety? Would the Silicon Valley have been galvanized to take action if Maria’s family hadn’t been rescued off the coast of China? Acting on behalf of refugees is not merely altruistic, each of these individuals see the relationship between helping others and helping themselves. In Danika’s words,

“By saving refugees, we are saving ourselves, our future, our morality, and our civilization.”

This story was written in honor of World Refugee Day 2016. #withrefugees. Special thanks to Essa, Danika, and Maria for sharing their stories and photos. Additional photos by by Anne Barot and Ahmad Ismail.

Natasha Freidus

Natasha Freidus is a consultant and trainer leveraging new media tools for social change. She currently lives in France where she volunteers with a local refugee solidarity effort.

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